When the Dragons defeated Munster in September 2022, even the most one-eyed Munster supporter would not have believed they could win the United Rugby Championship title. For Munster to even reach the playoffs from their mid-season position was mathematically possible, but highly improbable. Munster were staring down the barrel of missing the cut for next season’s Champions Cup.
While the men in red rallied and scraped into the URC playoffs they then faced the enormous task of being on the road for all three knockout matches. They first had to reverse an in-season spanking from the Warriors in Glasgow. And as they had not beaten Leinster in years a win in Dublin in the semi-finals appeared to be their certain dead end.
If they could overcome those enormous odds the reward was the huge disadvantage of facing an arduous long-haul flight to Cape Town, with all the complications that brings for elite athletes.
It has been a truly remarkable month for Munster and the URC as their performances in the playoffs have reinvigorated the competition. And in ending Leinster’s long-held dominance in Ireland, Munster have also reinvigorated the entire interprovincial rivalry which is vital for Irish rugby’s long-term success.
Winning in Cape Town tossed a giant log on the fire that fuels the white-hot competition between the Irish provinces. A rivalry that has generated multiple Champions Cup, URC and Six Nations triumphs across the last two decades.
The burning desire to gain respect from the other Irish teams runs far deeper than the public understands. The pressure to succeed against the other provinces is enormous. When the Irish team assembles, loyalty and camaraderie is always absolute. Yet the path a provincial player must walk to reach the green jersey is the mirror opposite. Every opposition player in the other provinces is the enemy.
For a player who aspires to be selected for the national team, their mission is crystal clear. They must outperform their Irish opponents in head-to-head competition. National team selection is earned, it is not given. The competition created by the process to earn the cherished green jersey generates the energy that powers the Irish team.
Learning how to ferociously compete for a place within the national team while remaining true and faithful to the groups’ culture is a learned skill. Like all acquired skills, failure is part of the learning curve and the process can get out of hand.
Fist fights on the training ground as the old dog that is at the head of the pack puts a challenging puppy back in their place are not unheard of. More often there is a culture of mentorship and support from a senior player to a junior with the pecking order kept in check during full-body contact sessions.
The instruments are as blunt as the outcome. You are either selected or you are not.
The motivation that underpins the performances can be traced back to childhood dreams when a young player watches a match and whisper to themselves: “I want to wear that jersey.” Those types of dreams can lead individuals, with the required drive and perseverance, to achieve the extraordinary, journeying along a path that not even their wildest childhood imaginations could have created.
As sports psychologists tell us, those who are fully committed to “what” they want to achieve, can withstand almost any adversity on the road to “how” they get there. The Irish players understand their “what” and the interprovincial rivalry provides the “how”.
Dreaming and competing have a downside.
This season, in all but three games Leinster dominated all who came before them in commanding displays of supreme rugby. Then the game rose up, like the untameable creature that it is, to remind us all that nothing across its vast and complex ways of being played is totally predictable. The variables in rugby are too vast and complex to ever be mastered.
On the faces of the Leinster players, dripping with pain, we all witnessed the death of a dream.
Just when all Irish dreaming seemed to have gurgled down the drain of a cold bath, a welcome ghostly apparition appeared in the unlikely setting of Cape Town. Against seemingly overwhelming odds, the old Munster from the dim and distant past came back to life.
As a result, the other Irish provinces have circled the date on their calendar when they will face the champions and are scheming to take their rugby scalp.
This multigenerational interprovincial competition has become Irish rugby’s superpower.
Among this mix of healthy, and at times cruel, competition the cream, as they say, has risen to the top. These blood-deep rivalries have empowered Andy Farrell to name a squad for the World Cup that has a real chance of success.
A success that started with a young player’s dream. Who first learned how to compete for selection and then competed to win. All the time learning, growing and striving. Fighting for a day when all the work, pain, frustration and heartbreak, that every player must endure, earns them the right to be part of a team that steps up and takes its chance to lift a trophy.
Well done Munster. Enjoy a great win that is richly deserved.
Remembering that very soon the hunter will become the hunted and that wild phoenix of competition, that has enriched Irish rugby, will rise once again. Born not from the ashes, but in the jealous green eyes of their old rivals, who live just up the road, across a few counties, in the other province.